ShareThis Page

Girls need to know 'how good they are'

| Monday, May 14, 2012, 1:42 p.m.

One reason few gifted high school girls don't choose a career in engineering is that 'some of them just don't know how good they really are,' said Cristina Amon, a Carnegie Mellon University professor of mechanical engineering.

Only about 20 percent of students enrolled in engineering at CMU are women, a figure in line with that of other institutions. Nationwide, less than 10 percent of American engineers are women.

'It's difficult to recruit high school girls because engineering in general is not reflected among the common population,' Amon said. 'Look at the television shows, 'ER' (medicine, and, of course, 'Medicine Woman'), 'L.A. Law' and 'The Practice' (law). Those are presented as very exciting careers but you don't have the same role models for an engineer.

'You have to hope girls have a relative or a family friend who can present engineering as an exciting option. They need to see engineering and how their strengths fit in during their high school years. They are very capable of doing the work.'

Stacia Davis, a senior at Hempfield Area High School, will enroll at the University of Pittsburgh's School of Engineering next fall.

'I've always liked math,' Davis said. 'I grew up in West Virginia and attended an elementary school in which there were only 12 kids in my class. It was obvious I didn't like English (she still doesn't like English, she said, laughing) and the teacher there tested me for their equivalent of a gifted program.

'I didn't quite reach that level but they were able to identify my ability in math and so I was allowed to study it on an advanced basis.

'By my eighth-grade year (her family had since moved to Pennsylvania), I was asking for extra work in algebra.'

Davis is the daughter of Charles and Suz Davis of Luxor. Her father is an electrical engineer.

'I don't want to teach but I'm not sure which engineering (discipline) I am going to eventually pursue,' she said. 'Pitt has an orientation course for freshmen that explores all of those. If I am leaning toward one over another at all, it might be chemical engineering.'

And that would be typical of women in engineering, said Amon, who also serves as director of the Institute for Complex Engineered Systems at CMU. 'Statistics show that the highest percentage of women in engineering usually work in the environmental, biomedical or chemical engineering fields although there is no hard evidence as to why.

'It may be that these fields draw more women because there is a human element to it, a greater sense that these women can do something for the good of society through them.'

Amon said CMU has actively sought to promote engineering among women, especially since the inception of a program in 1994 - Engineering Your Future - designed to encourage high school girls to explore the profession during summer seminars. It is sponsored by the CMU student chapter of the Society of Women Engineers.

'What's interesting to observe is the number of girls who are surprised at what engineers do,' Amon said. 'A lot of them say, 'Oh, is this what it's all about.'

'We need teachers to have a grasp of engineering in order to foster and stimulate the interest.'

Alexandra Summers, 22, has just wrapped up her senior year at CMU and the New Hampshire woman will start work in September for Lockheed Martin in the nuclear operations division at the Knolls Atomic Power Laboratory in upstate New York. Her degree is in mechanical engineering.

'Neither of my parents were engineers but I always seemed to have this interest in how things worked and how to fix them,' she said. 'In a sense I was always problem-solving and that's what engineering is. My middle and high schools were very good about bringing in women in the field to talk to students.

'I wasn't sure which I would major in but mechanical seemed to offer the most opportunities. CMU is very good about recruiters coming on campus and it was really fun to sit down with these people and make site visits. When I started school, I knew the job market was good and it absolutely still is, especially for women.'

Summers and three of her classmates will be heading for Columbia, S.C., next weekend where their senior engineering design project - a dune buggy - will be entered in a four-hour endurance race against the creations of students at other universities.

John Anderson, dean of engineering at CMU, said educators are aware of the low number of women in the field. 'It's at 20 percent now and when I was in school that maybe was 1 percent but it seems to be leveling off around 20 percent,' he said. 'We know that we are still missing out on some terribly talented people.

'We've discussed the problem at a national level, but it's just speculation as to why we can't get the number of women higher. Is it peer pressure• Is there still a 'geek' factor• Is there not enough encouragement in the high school years?'

Hempfield's Davis cites the influence of a 'memorable' teacher - the now-retired William Love - in eighth grade. 'He was a nice person and he was always willing to invest the time in my interest,' she said.

'What we need is some general appreciation of what engineers have done and can do, of how great their impact is on society,' Amon said. 'There is a tremendous sacrifice of time, even time away from family, but women will be more willing to make that sacrifice when they realize that one of their rewards is the respect of society.'

Another reward, of course, is money, especially in a market where demand outstrips supply.

According to the Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual earnings of civil engineers (for example) is $53,450. The average starting salary in 1999 for civil engineers with a bachelor's degree was $36,100.

Davis is aware that a generous salary will be one of the rewards of four or more years of challenging studies in engineering.

But it had little bearing on her selection of engineering as a career.

'It's what I do best now and what I think I can do best and the fact that the money is there when I graduate is just a bonus,' she said.

TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.

click me